Back in March, I argued in The Daily Beast that Republican politicians were finally coming around on climate change.
At that time, at least some in the GOP had pivoted from a position of outright denial toward one that at least accepted that the world was warming, even if most stopped short of acknowledging that humans were to blame. As evidence, I pointed to a transformation in talking points—from calling global warming a hoax or a fraud to the ubiquitous “I’m not a scientist” cop-out—and a resolution signed by almost every Republican senator in January acknowledging the reality of warming. Some Republicans, including Rand Paul, even signed a separate resolution stating human activity contributed to climate change. While I saw this as a positive trend, a potential step toward a bipartisan deal to address greenhouse gas emissions, I cautioned that any progress could be obliterated during primary season. After all, how would this position survive the pandering to the far right that comes with the Republican primaries?
During November’s debate, we got our answer. Maria Bartiromo of the Fox Business Network pressed Paul on the resolution. She noted that he was one of only 15 Republicans to agree that humans played a role in warming. Was it possible, Bartiromo asked, to continue America’s booming energy production while simultaneously pursuing a meaningful climate change program?
Paul said that as president he would repeal regulations on energy companies. (Yes, that’s really how he began.) He continued: “While I think man ha—” and then stopped. “While I think man may,” he corrected, “have a role in our climate, I know nature does.” Paul then observed that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and has seen hotter and colder periods. What was needed now, he insisted, was to “free up the energy sector, let ’em drill, let ’em explore.” While none of the candidates denied the Earth was warming, none seemed to think it was much to worry about, either.
Joseph Romm presents a significantly more dire situation in his new book, Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know.
A physicist and former acting assistant secretary in Clinton’s Energy Department, Romm runs the blog ClimateProgress.org, and is the author of several books on energy and climate. His new book is essentially a reference guide in which he poses common questions—“How do scientists know that recent climate change is primarily caused by human activity?” “How does climate change affect droughts?” “What will the impacts of sea level rise be?”—and answers them concisely and conversationally. While he is mostly successful avoiding wonkiness, he cites such a huge number of studies that it’s almost unimaginable that anyone could walk away unconvinced of the matter’s urgency.
The problem, of course, is that those who most need to read Romm’s book, won’t. As I write, in fact, a video is circulating showing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saying it’s his “feeling” that climate change is not a crisis—irrespective of what scientists think. And he’s one of the more progressive Republicans on the issue.
The reluctance of the American right to take action against climate change in the face of such overwhelming evidence over so many years will be questioned frequently by historians. The data hasn’t always been as voluminous as it is now, of course, but it’s existed for decades. Romm cites studies from as far back as the mid-’70s warning of the dangers of carbon emissions and global warming. ExxonMobil, as we learned recently, became aware of the hazards of carbon emissions in 1977, yet they funded climate denial until just a few years ago. Charles and David Koch, of Koch Industries, meanwhile, continue to spread misinformation, and they have pledged almost $1 billion to influence the 2016 presidential contest.
When I interviewed Romm in 2010, he asserted that the key figures pushing climate denial will be judged very harshly by history, “in the category of Neville Chamberlain or people who were shills for the tobacco industry.”
The basic facts of climate change, as Romm makes clear, are not particularly complicated. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Earth has warmed about 1.5°F (.8°C). Most of that warming has come since 1970. This warming trend tracks almost perfectly the increase in human-generated greenhouse gas emissions (mostly carbon but also methane and others) over the same period. There is now more carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere (400 parts per million) than there has been in more than 1 million years. While it’s certainly true that the Earth’s climate has changed over the ages, the reasons—solar variability, volcanoes, etc.—have been analyzed and discarded as the “forcings” driving current trends. In fact, Romm concludes, “In the absence of human activity… the planet would likely have cooled in recent decades.” In other words, the forcing that is changing our climate now is us.
Most scientists agree that a warming of 4°C (7.2° F) over pre-industrial levels would be near catastrophic for humans, and we are on course to exceed that by century’s end. Scientists are seeking to keep the temperature rise below 1.5°C (2.7°F), which would avoid many of the worst impacts. But that would mean taking significant action to reduce emissions. Already 90 percent of our glaciers are shrinking, the seas are rising and acidifying (they are acidifying faster than they have in 300 million years), storms are getting worse, droughts are lasting longer (California’s drought is the worst in 1,200 years), and forest fires are more frequent (the wildfire season is two months longer than it used to be). Romm even presents new evidence suggesting that high levels of carbon in the air reduce cognitive ability. Given the pressing need for action, Climate Change is the right book at the right time: accessible, comprehensive, unflinching, humane.
This is all pretty alarming (though not “alarmist”), but the good news is that popular support for action is high. In a recent poll, two-thirds of Americans favored the deal made at the COP21 conference, in which nearly 200 nations agreed to limit emissions so that the global temperature rise stays “well below 2°C (3.6°F).” Moreover, the Chinese have agreed to an emissions cap for the first time ever. Helping nudge global leaders along were the three-quarters of a billion people around the world who marched in support of an agreement.
Significant obstacles remain, some right here at home. Along with Republican presidential candidates, congressional Republicans don’t exactly seem moved to action. On Dec. 1, in fact, the Republican-led House voted to block emissions rules on power plants. Explaining why, Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina blasted President Obama for taking the “pseudoscientific threat” of climate change more seriously than radical jihadists.
What Rep. Duncan may not realize is that strong evidence exists to support a link between climate change and terrorism. Syria’s four-year drought, for example, destroyed the livelihood of 800,000 people, contributing to a civil war that has fueled the rise of ISIS. Climate change made that drought two to three times more likely. If only Rep. Duncan had read Joe Romm’s new book, he’d know that.